In a conversation with his former thesis adviser Professor of Jurisprudence Robert George, junior Senator Texas Senator Ted Cruz '92 spoke about moral leadership, and emphasized the importance of the free exchange of ideas, especially healthy debate.
“You have to understand how people of good faith can look at the issues you most care about, and come to a conclusion that is 180 [degrees] the opposite of what you believe,” Cruz explained during this public conversation. Cruz, back on campus for his 25th Reunion, also participated in a debate with his former debate partner and two current students at the American Whig Cliosophic Society. Cruz also finished second in the Republican primary for president in the 2016 election cycle, dropping out of the race in May of 2016.
George began by prompting Cruz to reflect on some of his most memorable experiences at the University. Cruz explained that he loved his time at the University.
“I had come from a very small private school in Houston," he explained. "My graduating class was 43. Nobody had ever gone to an Ivy League school. This was not a world I knew, not a world I understood." He noted his humble roots, explaining that his mother had struggled to go to college. Though her father, Cruz’s grandfather, strongly disapproved, she was able to attend Rice University for no cost. At the time, Rice was a tuition-free University.
Upon matriculation at the University, Cruz explained that he was at first overwhelmed, but soon became aware of the University's unique strengths.
“It was daunting, intimidating, but it was also amazing," he said. "One of the greatest resources is the student body." He explained that he spent most of his time on debate and student government, but that he particularly loved that he could have great conversations and passionate arguments until 3 in the morning.
George asked about his bond with his roommate, David Panton, who was present in the audience during the talk. Cruz explained that due to David’s warmth and passions, they became fast friends through college and later in law school, adding that Panton was even the best man at Cruz’s wedding.
“I never had to advise a senior thesis with another student sitting beside him,” George joked, noting the strength of the friendship.
George shifted the conversation to Cruz’s politics, noting that Cruz was a conservative even as a student, but also adding that that was an acceptable position at the time.
“There was an openness to debate and dialogue. People felt entirely free to speak their mind,” Cruz explained, adding that this openness was a primary reason why he chose to attend the University. He said that he fell in love with the University, though it was and remains an overwhelmingly liberal campus. There was a critical mass of conservative students, in addition to liberal students, and Cruz noted that the conservatives were respected and allowed to freely debate. During his time at the University, Cruz was chair of the Clio house, the conservative side of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, the University's debate and political union.
Reflecting on his conversations at the University, Cruz noted that there could be both seriousness and lightheartedness at times.
“You engaged in ideas, but also learned not to take yourself too seriously," he said. “I’d call a friend a Communist, he’d call me a Fascist, then we’d sit down and have a beer.”
George, while continuing the conversation on the importance of difference, explained that the most satisfying part of his thirty-two years at the University has been his time teaching with University Professor Cornel West. George explained that he did not believe that many other institutions would welcome such discourse, and that the University was rare in that capacity. He noted that in addition to intellectual diversity, the vibrancy of thought and debate is both unique and an admirable aspect of campus culture. Instead of fostering this kind of debate, Cruz explained that today there is instead a growing fear of disagreement.
“If you really believe what you believe, you shouldn’t be afraid of people who disagree with you,” Cruz said. “If what you believe is right, it should withstand being tested.”
While explaining this changing time, Cruz noted that not a single Republican was invited to speak for any college commencement this year, exempting Vice President Pence at Middlebury. Pence’s presence drew protests throughout the college.
Cruz explained that when he was invited to give the commencement speech at Berkeley ten years ago, there were protesters.
“They were mad that I had defended the pledge of allegiance and the ten commandments,” he stated. He noted that though there was a clear passion for social change on Berkeley's campus, there was also a culture of seeing dissenters as less intelligent. George added that a primary belief of his is that in order to understand even one's own side of the argument, one must recognize the arguments for the other side.
George shifted the conversation to the current what's been called the War on the Right, asking Cruz for his thoughts. Cruz explained that he thinks that politics are reaching uncharted waters, though thus far, the substance of what has been done has been acceptable, for example the recent US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. He explained that the cabinet appointments thus far have been strong, and that Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch was a strong selection. He added that he was working to encourage the administration to adopt good policies, and to discourage them from adopting bad policies.
George stated that currently, he believes there to be a default ideology of nationalism, adding that he could see no relief from the government's abuses of power in the near future. Cruz explained that there are multiple ways of viewing nationalism, he said, citing President Donald Trump's recent decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. The president, Cruz stated, said that he was working for the people of Pittsburg rather than the people of Paris.
Among other concerns, George reflected on the dangers posed to conservatism.
“My worry is that these conservative ideals will be lost to the conservative movement if the conservative movement embraces Trumpsim,” George stated.
Cruz responded by stating that this president fights for working men and women rather than global interests, and then began speaking more in depth about the recent 2016 election. He explained that this election came down to the Reagan Democrats and Rust Belt working class voters. He explained that this section of voters was not represented well by many Republicans or Democratic candidates in this election. Cruz noted that rather than considering their weaknesses within their party and platform, Democrats have instead focused on Russian involvement in the election to explain why they lost the election.
“There has been no serious inquiry as to why the Democratic party has lost working class voters," Cruz explained.
George asked Cruz for ways in which Republicans can make themselves more attractive to the crucial minority electorate. Cruz responded with the example of Texas, explaining that Texas was on its way to becoming a majority-Hispanic state, noting the importance of Hispanic support and that Hispanics now compose the highest demographic in the military. A major focus of the Hispanic community, said Cruz, is the American Dream. Focusing on that is crucial to gaining Hispanics' as well as other communities' support.
George's final question addressed the the opioid crisis, a topic that Cruz has addressed often in past speeches. Cruz told a story about his sister and her battle with addiction to alcohol and drugs for most of her life. He described how painful it was for her family and son to witness her struggle, and how he did his best to help prevent her son from falling into similar circumstances.
In discussing the best way to proceed in today’s changing and transformative political sphere, Cruz concluded by explaining the importance of having strong morals in government.
“Having principled men and women in office is how you protect yourself from tyranny,” Cruz said.
This event took place at 9:30 am on Saturday, June 3rd, in Robertson Hall during the University's annual Reunions. It was organized by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.